Vagabundeo (Wanderings) , the second album from Alexa Weber Morales , and her first for producer Wayne Wallace 's Patois label, follows the groundbreaking footsteps of her 2004 debut release Jazzmérica . This vibrantly imagined collection melds warm acoustic jazz with flavors from across the vast spectrum of Latin, Cuban, Brazilian, and African music for a mix that's at once rootsy and cosmopolitan, street-wise and sophisticated. The singer's dynamic vocals, innovative rhythmic sense, and emotive phrasing bring a sizzling, soulful power to every note she sings. Her multi-octave range and command of four languages lends authenticity to songs as diverse as the haunting "Calling You," from the Bagdad Café soundtrack, and the seldom-heard Brazilian gem, "Ave Rara ." Like Ella Fitzgerald, one of her first inspirations, Weber Morales uses her warm mid-range tone as a foundation, effortlessly leaping into a dulcet higher register or swooping down to deliver earthy, purring lows.
Vagabundeo is a rich album that highlights the striking sound of Weber Morales, the arranging and trombone skills of three-time Grammy nominee Wayne Wallace , and a who's who of the San Francisco Bay Area's top Latin and jazz players, including percussionists John Santos and Michael Spiro , bassist David Belove , montuno maestro Murray Low , drummer Paul van Wageningen , sax men Ron Stallings and Melecio Magdaluyo , and pianist/synth player Frank Martin . The arrangements combine Latin jazz, Afro-funk, gospel, salsa, samba-canção, and pop, but they're delivered in a seamless blend of sparkling musicianship and understated virtuosity.
"Ave Rara" is a s amba-canção written by composer Edu Lobo and Aldir Blanc, longtime lyricist for João Bosco and Guinga. The tranquil vocal track is complemented by Rick Vandivier 's guitar solo and Frank Martin 's lush piano excursion. Weber Morales's overdubbed harmonies intensify the feeling of saudades , the dreamy wistfulness that makes Brazilian music so poignant, while the outro has a Middle Eastern feel. "Calling You," from the film Bagdad Café , is an a cappella tour de force. Bryan Dyer 's bass vocal and Kenny Washington 's baritone/tenor provide a foundation for Weber Morales's aching lead vocal.
"Angelitos Negros," a poem by Venezuelan poet Andrés Eloy Blanco, was set to music by Manuel Alvarez Maciste and made popular by Mexico's Pedro Infante in the 1948 movie of the same name. Wallace's vocal arrangement for the choir— One Voice (Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir members Patricia Bahia, Kimiko Joy, Vernon Staggers and Helen Bernard Gray ), Sandy Cressman , Ron Stallings , and Weber Morales—gives the song a soaring, soulful aura. "Agua de Beber/Aguas de Março" combines two familiar tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim, likening water to love, essential for life. The straightforward bossa arrangement keeps the focus on Weber Morales; vocals and percussion intertwine to produce a giddy, percolating outro.
"The Goddess of War," a Weber Morales original, is the album's funkiest track. John Santos and Michael Spiro lay down a diabolic Afro/Latin/funk groove accented by Frank Martin 's sinister synthesizer and David Belove 's driving bass. Weber Morales's growling vocals convey the terror and fascination we all feel in the face of uncontrolled violence. There's also "Habanera," the famous aria from Bizet's Carmen , recast as a pilón-salsa with Melecio Magdaluyo 's rumbling baritone sax; "El Cantante" a Ruben Blades tune (famously recorded by salsa bad boy Hector Lavoe) with a Wallace horn arrangement that tweaks the original Fania track; and the Weber Morales original "Her Ways Wander," a smoky cha-cha ballad that tells the story of a mysterious femme fatale.
Overall, Vagabundeo mirrors the gumbo of global influences currently simmering in the Bay Area, a Latin sound as unique as anything coming out of Miami, New York, and San Juan. With Vagabundeo and the exceptional singing she contributed to Wayne Wallace 's recent The Reckless Search for Beauty project, Weber Morales is ready to step out and take her place in the first rank of the Bay Area's—and the nation's—jazz singers.
Alexa Weber Morales was born to a musical family in Berkeley, California. Her father was a stay-at-home novelist and freelance writer who loved piano rags; her mother, a university administrator and aspiring vocalist. They placed an emphasis on language from early on. "Partially due to our heritage, and to their taste for well-aged wine ," Weber Morales laughs, "my parents started the Ecole Bilingue in Berkeley, where my two brothers and I learned French. We also lived in France briefly after my parents got divorced."
Growing up, she alternated weeks staying on her father's sailboat in the Berkeley Marina, her ex-stepmother's artist commune, and her mother's place. She began classical piano lessons at five and sang her first solo at eight at Malcolm X Elementary, during a performance with Bobby McFerrin . " Dick Whittington [legendary jazz pianist and music educator] was my teacher. He liked my husky alto, but when I studied classical voice later on, they called me a high soprano.
"I've been singing as long as I can remember. I can sing an aria and sight-read, but my voice is contemporary. As with everything in my life, there's a broad range: I'm drawn to the street and the intellectual, the refined and the folk."
During her final fling with academia, Weber Morales studied languages at Bryn Mawr College. Desperate for music, however, she performed in cabaret and theater, and listened to k.d. lang . She left college in her sophomore year and took several months to drive cross-country, playing Take 6 , the Gypsy Kings , and the soundtrack to the movie Bagdad Café all the way. One evening, sitting alone on top of a green hill in South Texas, she wrote her first song.
Back in the Bay Area, Weber Morales worked as an apprentice carpenter for a salty storyteller, an auto mechanic for a saucy old Hungarian, a roofer for a randy New Englander, a translator for a crazy government agent, and a freelance writer for a frazzled magazine editor. She also delivered singing telegrams, sang on boats and in malls, performed at Renaissance Faires and cafés, soloed with chamber choirs and at Grace Cathedral, and fronted big bands. While she continued her independent music studies, she worked her way up through the Bay Area music scene:
"It's been a long road, but I'm so lucky to have played with Carlos Federico and studied with Ed Kelly , just to name two of many heroes. It seems like you're not making any headway, and then you look back and see that those first lessons with Faith Winthrop and Macatee Hollie , those kind words I received from Madeline Eastman or Mark Murphy or Nancy Wilson —there are hundreds of milestones like that on a path that has led to this pretty cool place where I am today."
It did take years, however, to find a way to reconcile making money and making music. "I married young, and my husband told me that music is a nice hobby, but it will never be some-thing big. I told him we'd get married on two conditions: I'd have a lot of animals and eventually, I was going to make it as a singer." Her husband was a recent immigrant who came equipped with his own Mexican cultural force-field, resulting in plenty of clashes for the newlyweds.
The insider perspective on Latin America had its positives, though, helping Alexa land a job editing a Spanish-language magazine. When the company decided to launch a Brazilian edition, she taught herself Portuguese by memorizing singer Gal Costa 's repertoire. She honed her Portuguese during several trips to Brazil, where she was often mistaken for a Carioca, or Rio native. Subsequently she traveled to Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and Cuba.
It was in 1999, during class at Jazz Camp West taught by Wayne Wallace , that she began to understand that not only her singing voice but her songs were viable. "Wayne respected me as a musician and songwriter," says Weber Morales. "He has wide-ranging interests and can approach a song melodically, or groove-wise, or as a lyric or a concept. I have a lot of words in my head and he has a lot of notes in his, so it works out well."
A mother of two young boys, Alexa began preproduction on Vagabundeo while pregnant with her second child and maintained demanding recording and gigging schedules just weeks after giving birth. She once struggled with balancing art and commerce; now her priorities are motherhood and music. "I was laid off from my magazine job when I was pregnant in December 2005. Everyone wonders when to quit their day job. In my case, it quit me. Now I'm applying everything I learned from ten years in that creative business to my full-time focus as a musician."
It appears the timing couldn't have been better. Wallace produced her first album, Jazzmérica , an eclectic brew of salsa, jazz, and Brazilian influences. Despite the fact that she had no promotion budget, Jazzmérica slowly built a buzz. Rave local and national reviews led to airplay across the nation. Its success led to profiles on such syndicated radio programs as "Listen Here" and the BBC's "Have Your Say"; guest performances with the Reno Jazz Orchestra; working with Wallace as a Monterey Jazz Festival Latin Jazz Clinician; and contributing lead vocals to The Reckless Search for Beauty (Patois Records, 2007), Wallace's latest release. Their successful collaboration continues on Vagabundeo , another exciting step in the lifelong musical journey of Alexa Weber Morales.